Glyphosate in Hard Water Linked to Kidney Disease, Study Finds

Sprouts of crabgrass and dandelions have popped up in your garden, so you spray them with Roundup, the popular weedkiller. It’s the go-to choice for many, as it’s said to be easy to use, convenient, and gets the job done. However, it’s back in the news for not-so-positive reasons.

Just weeks ago, a study revealed that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the culprit behind a mysterious epidemic of chronic kidney disease in rural Sri Lanka. There’s much to discuss, so stick around as we dissect the study and delve into the specifics.

About the Study

Abnormally high rates of CKDu have been a problem for Sri Lankans for decades. CKDu, short for Chronic Kidney Disease of Uncertain Etiology, is a deadly, unusual form of kidney disease that affects 5% to 20% of adults in rural communities across the country. Health officials first spotted these CKDu incidences among rice paddy farmers, but cases continued to spread for unknown reasons.

While there were known associations with kidney disease like dehydration from working in a hot climate, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension, there seemed to be more to the story. Researchers became even more concerned, as Sri Lankan kids between 10 and 17 began showing clear signs of the disease.

The Investigation

Researchers initially suspected that glyphosate, water hardness, and certain trace elements in the drinking water were causing the increased cases of kidney disease. However, they couldn’t prove it without a full investigation. To get to the bottom of it, researchers from Duke University collected water samples from over 200 wells across Sri Lanka, including 154 wells in areas with endemic CKDu cases. The researchers analyzed each sample for glyphosate, hardness, fluoride, and trace metals.

The Findings

The main findings from the study—as published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters on September 13, 2023—are as follows:

  • In CKDu-prone areas, glyphosate appeared in 44% of wells, compared to just 8% in non-affected areas.
  • Fluoride was found in 99% of CKDu wells and 80% of non-affected wells.

After applying logistic regression to their results, the research team found that elevated levels of glyphosate, fluoride, vanadium, and water hardness were all associated with a higher local prevalence of CKDu.

Should private well users in America be concerned?

Absolutely! Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the United States, and over 23 million American households rely on private wells as their drinking water source—all reasons to be concerned. It’s especially worrying for private well users living near farms, hazardous waste disposal sites containing glyphosate, and manufacturing plants producing glyphosate products.

It’s heartbreaking what’s happened (and is happening) in Sri Lanka, but we should take it as a warning to pay more attention to this kind of contamination, given its widespread use and PFAS-like persistence. We can’t afford to ignore the potential risks associated with glyphosate and other chemicals possibly lurking in our water supplies, especially in rural regions.

So, let’s take this time to learn how it gets into water, its health effects, and how to keep it out of our drinking water.

How Does Glyphosate Get into Drinking Water?

Glyphosate often infiltrates drinking water sources through various pathways:

  • Agricultural runoff: Farmers and gardeners apply glyphosate to lawns, crops, or gardens to control unwanted weeds and plants. But sometimes, the chemical residue ends up reaching the surrounding soil. During heavy rainfall or flooding, the water can wash the residue into nearby water bodies, such as rivers, lakes, and streams that supply drinking water to municipalities and wells. Glyphosate can also soak into the soil and, in some cases, reach groundwater sources. This often happens when excessive amounts are used, the plants don’t absorb it all, or soil microbes fail to break it down. Over time, glyphosate can seep into underground aquifers and contaminate groundwater used for drinking.
  • Soil erosion: Glyphosate usually clings tightly to soil particles, but soil loaded with the compound can wash into water through soil erosion. During heavy rain, flooding, or another erosion event, soil carrying glyphosate can end up in nearby water bodies. The glyphosate in this soil may then leach into the water and contaminate it.
  • Spray drift: Applying glyphosate in windy conditions can cause it to drift away from its intended target. If the wind carries the herbicide over areas close to water sources, it may settle in the water and contaminate it—though it would take a fair amount to cause an issue.

When water treatment plants and even individual homes use those sources for drinking water, it’s easy to ingest the glyphosate in the water unknowingly. This is a particular issue for well water, though municipal water users may also be exposed to the chemical if the municipality does not filter its water correctly.

How Does Glyphosate in Water Affect the Kidneys?

Consider the case of the rice farmers exposed to glyphosate. Once researchers noticed the rise in kidney disease among them, they sent urine samples, drinking water, and rice to a lab to be analyzed. The results later found that the farmers’ drinking water was contaminated with glyphosate and heavy metals and that these compounds reached their kidneys.

According to Beyond Pesticides, glyphosate can form bonds with toxic heavy metals and ions in the environment and hard water to form stable compounds lasting up to 7 years in water and 22 years in soil. These compounds can then be consumed in food and water and often do not break down until they reach the kidneys.

Once inside the kidneys, the glyphosate-ion compounds slowly impair the kidney’s ability to filter excess waste and fluid from the blood. Sooner or later, this results in the need for dialysis, kidney transplant, or death.

Other Health Effects of Glyphosate Exposure

Glyphosate doesn’t only affect the kidneys. It can also lead to other serious health problems. But bear in mind that these effects need to be studied further and that studies on farmers who work closely with the chemical may not apply to people exposed to small amounts of it in food.

1.     May increase the risk of cancer.

There is conflicting information on whether glyphosate can cause cancer in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer categorizes glyphosate as a cancer-causing chemical based on observational, animal, and test tube studies. However, the EPA believes the opposite. In 2020, the agency released a statement saying glyphosate does not pose a risk to humans as long as it is used according to directions and that it is unlikely that it causes cancer in humans.

Learn More: 7 Potential Cancer-Causing Contaminants in Tap Water | Carcinogens in Drinking Water: Is Your Water Raising Your Cancer Risk?

2.   May destroy gut bacteria.

Many bacteria live in our gut—some friendly and incredibly important for our health. Animal studies (1, 2) have found that glyphosate can disrupt beneficial gut bacteria, while harmful ones seem highly resistant to the chemical. One article even hypothesized that the glyphosate in Roundup is linked to increased gluten sensitivity and celiac disease worldwide.

3.   Eye or skin irritation

Glyphosate can be very irritating if left on your skin or eyes. The National Pesticide Information Center states, “People who breathed in spray mist from glyphosate products felt irritation in their nose and throat.”

Learn more: 6 Toxic Water Contaminants That May Irritate Your Skin

4.   Respiratory effects

Glyphosate has been associated with respiratory effects (lung and nose), such as rhinitis, atopic asthma, and wheezing, in people using glyphosate products.

How Much Glyphosate in Drinking Water is Acceptable?

In the United States, glyphosate is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This federal law allows a maximum of 700 parts per billion (ppb) of glyphosate in drinking water, although different states may also have stricter maximum levels of glyphosate. So, check with your state to see what local recommendations or regulations are in place.

Is Glyphosate in Your Drinking Water?

Between 2017 and 2019, glyphosate has been detected in 130 utilities serving 419,000 Americans across seven states. But does that mean it is in your drinking water, too? Not exactly. But the only way to know is to test your water.

We always recommend laboratory testing over at-home testing, as the former is more thorough and produces more accurate results. Lab testing does come at a higher cost, though. If you decide to give it a go, all you need to do is purchase a water test kit, collect and submit the water sample to the laboratory, and wait for the results.

Depending on the laboratory, you can expect the results within days. Some will also include a guide with recommendations on how to treat your drinking water to ensure it is safe.

Learn more: 10 Common Problems a Water Test Can Detect in Tap Water

Do water filters remove glyphosate (or other herbicides and pesticides)?

People often recommend that you stick to organic foods, avoid glyphosate-based herbicides (especially if you are on well water), etc., to minimize your exposure to glyphosate. But what do you do if it’s in your water? Two words: filter it.

There are many types of water filters you can use, but the two most common and practical are:

Reverse osmosis filters

Reverse osmosis water filters have proven to remove glyphosate and other unwanted chemicals from drinking water effectively. These systems use a combination of pre-filters and post-filters, along with the RO membrane, to target and remove some of the most dangerous contaminants found in water. Impressively, an RO membrane alone, with its ultra-fine pores, removes somewhere between 84% and 99% of glyphosate.

If you’re looking for a top-quality, affordable, and reliable RO system for your home, our undercounter reverse osmosis filters are an excellent choice. They can be installed neatly under your kitchen or bathroom sink, using a multi-stage process to eliminate glyphosate and other toxic contaminants from drinking water.

Learn more: Reverse Osmosis Water Filtration Explained

Activated Carbon Filters

Activated carbon filters are also effective at removing glyphosate from drinking water, using a process called adsorption to do so. During adsorption, the activated carbon attracts the glyphosate molecules to its surface and traps them in pores in the surface area. The filter media used in these filters are usually coconut shell, coal, wood, and a few others, with coconut shell carbon being the most renewable, like in our whole-house water filters.

Learn more: Activated Carbon Filters: What Do They Remove from Water?

Final Thoughts

Glyphosate in well water should be a concern, given its link to Sri Lanka’s kidney disease epidemic. The findings from the study should serve as a wake-up call to test our drinking water more frequently and put measures in place to prevent glyphosate and similar chemicals from contaminating our drinking water. While municipalities often treat water to remove contaminants, sometimes including glyphosate, it could still find its way into city water. However, it’s hazardous for private wells users living in or near areas with large amounts of glyphosate in the environment.

But glyphosate isn’t only a problem for Sri Lankans. It’s also been found in several water utilities in the United States—and it could be lurking in your water supply, too. The good news is that you can have your water tested at a laboratory and, based on the results, install a high-quality undercounter reverse osmosis filter or whole-house carbon water filter in your home to safeguard your drinking water.

If you need help choosing the most suitable one for your needs and budget, talk to one of our friendly technical experts at 800-589-5592 or message us via chat on our website.